Spangler’s From Sentence to Screen: The BFG


The BFG is a 2016 American fantasy adventure film directed and co-produced by Steven Spielberg, and stars Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill. It is based on the 1982 children’s novel of the same name by Roald Dahl. The film takes place in the mid 1900s where a young girl named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is living in an orphanage in London. One night when awake during the “witch hour,” when things like the boogeyman come out, she sees a giant (Mark Rylance). Realizing he has been seen, the giant grabs Sophie from her bed and takes the 10 year old girl with him to Giant Country. When they get to the giant’s house Sophie tries to escape, but to keep her with him the giant mixes a nightmare and gives it to Sophie so she will see what happens if she leaves. After Sophie wakes up she agrees not to leave the giant, and the gaint tells her about himself, how he can’t always say what he means, he is the smallest of all the giants, and that he catches dreams to give children. Sophie convinces the giant to show her Dream Country and while catching dreams the giant says he was once called The Big Friendly Giant. Hearing this Sophie decides to call him the BFG. After Sophie accidentally catches a horrible nightmare called a “Trogglehumper,” the BFG takes her back to Giant Country. Fearing that Sophie isn’t safe with him, because the other giants eat humans, he takes her back to the orphanage. He soon takes her back to Giant Country though and the two come up with a plan to stop the man-eating giants. In this blog post I will look at the changes made to the story and Sophie’s character when the novel was adapted into a film.

 Being that the movie has a greater variety of scenes than the book, the audience is able to see more of Sophie’s character in different situations, which is something that I think worked well for the movie. The novel is told in third person and oftentimes the narrator goes back and forth between the characters in the scene telling the reader what they are feeling, and adding more scenes to it would have just made the children’s book longer. When comparing it to the movie, it doesn’t have to worry about explaining the emotions of each character, instead just cutting to that character for a few seconds to see their body language o rhear verbal dialogue. Because of the differences between the two mediums, the scenes in the movie appear shorter than the novel. This change makes it so more scenes can be added to the story when adapting it to film or even expand ones that are taken from the novel. This decision gave Spielberg more freedom when adapting the movie, which is often not the case when looking at book to film adaptations.

One of the benefits I find in adding more scenes, is the relationship the viewer develops with Sophie. In the film she is shown as having a very spunky, persuasive attitude that hides how scared she is. When she warms up to someone though, it is clear to the viewer that she is actually a very kind person. When she is first kidnapped, she tries to escape from the BFG’s house by climbing out a window. This doesn’t work, but it leads to the very first conversation the two main characters have. Though the situation is quite alarming, Sophie is able to steer the conversation in the direction she wants. To hide how scared she is, Sophie asks the giant questions and tries to figure out what he is going to do with her. When she realizes this won’t work though she threatens to run away from BFG, which makes the giant quite anxious. In the book, Sophie is braver, as she asks direct questions and does not appear to fear BFG as she does in the movie. She is just as nice in the book as she is in the film, but instead is sweet right away. In the novel instead of trying to escape, Sophie asks the BFG questions while she tries to figure out where she is and what type of humans the giants like to eat. It is during this conversation Sophie learns BFG doesn’t eat humans. I think the differences in Sophie’s personalities stem from the fact the two versions are different ages. Sophie in the novel is 8 years old, making her younger than the film’s version. Younger children usually have a much more straightforward attitude about things and don’t have the same amount of practice when it comes to deceiving people. It is also mentioned in the novel that she doesn’t have many friends, and when she is awake during the “witching hour” is too afraid to get out of bed because she doesn’t want the director of the orphanage punishing her. The film starts though with Sophie out of bed, sneaking around the orphanage and clearly not worried about being caught. As she is older in the film, 10, Sophie would have a greater sense of how to talk with people to get what she wants, but she is just immature and strong-willed enough to make rash comments that make the BFG cross.

Though there were many scenes added or changed when adapting this story, they didn’t change the overall outcome or tone from Roald Dahl’s work until the end of the movie. Which is quite different and changed the overall feeling that the audience was left with. In the book’s ending, BFG stays with Sophie in London where the Queen of England has made a giant house for him to live in. It is revealed at the end, that the BFG writes a story about his adventures with Sophie and publishes it under the name Roald Dahl, an ending that the writer also used with his story James and the Giant Peach. Given that this novel was specifically targeted towards children it makes sense that the ending would include the two main characters staying together. Just like how in most children’s stories the main character is usually about the same age as the target audience, includes an adventure with a problem only that child can solve, and finally a happy ending; all things that Roald Dahl is known for having in his children stories. In the film though, Sophie ends up living in the palace and seeming to get adopted by the Queen’s personal maid. The BFG chooses to go back to Giant Country because he knows that Sophie is meant to have a “normal” life, including growing up with a happy family. Initially this may disappoint readers of the book, with the only redeeming quality of the BFG being able to hear Sophie talk to him from England, but when looking at the film as a whole it seems to make sense. In this version Sophie is older and seems to have a better understanding of the world around her. When BFG in the book tries to leave, Sophie almost cries not wanting to lose her only friend. In the film, though she is sad, the reasoning behind his leaving is clear to Sophie which makes it understandable for her. It also shows that, for the movie anyways, the two needed each other to grow but after that they don’t have to be constantly around each other. Something that I think makes sense when keeping with the idea of making the main character the same age as your target audience. 10-year-old viewers of the film would be able to more easily gasp the meaning behind this kind of ending compared to the 8-year-olds the book is meant for.    

When I was first introduced to this book I was still in elementary school and it was assigned for the reading group I was in. But given the fact I have a reading disability I didn’t actually read it and would just wait for the class decision on the book when my teacher would read bits of it. From those little excerpts, I didn’t think I liked the book but when the film came out I went to see it in the theater with my family. I thought the movie was super cute and totally cried at the end when Sophie said “Hi” to the BFG from London and he heard her. By that time I was a teenager who totally loved to read, so I decided to give Dahl’s book another shot. I find that I did actually like the book, not only because of the story itself but also because of how Roald Dahl writes his stories. In my next blog post I will be looking at the 2013 film, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, directed by Harald Zwart and adapted from Cassandra Clare’s novel City of Bones.        

— Jo Spangler, Film blogger.

Jo Spangler’s Bio:

Jo Spangler

Jo Spangler is a junior at Lewis University, majoring in English Literature and Language with a minor in Creative Writing. She is a writing tutor in the Lewis Writing Center and a Youth Enrichment Aide for the YMCA. In her free time, Jo enjoys reading, writing, listening to music, and watching movies. She has been to 10 countries outside the United States, including England, Italy, Turkey, and Austria. One of Jo’s favorite book series is The All Souls Trilogy, by Deborah Harkness, because of how she mixes the supernatural with history and the focus on character development. In the future, she hopes to go into the publishing industry to help find new and exciting books for people to read.

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